PENTAGON — U.S. Army private and Iraq War veteran Bradley Manning has testified at a pre-trial hearing, making his first public comments since he was arrested for allegedly leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the Wikileaks website in what some say is the largest leak of secret military information in U.S. history.
To Bradley Manning’s supporters, gathered on a cold rainy day outside the base where the hearings were under way, he is a hero.
To U.S. military prosecutors, Manning is a traitor who leaked hundreds of thousands of secret documents and aided the enemy. A conviction could mean a life sentence for the 24-year-old former intelligence analyst.
Manning is trying to avoid going to trial and has offered to plead guilty to leaking documents to Wikileaks.
Website founder Julian Assange spoke this week about the Manning case, saying it is the U.S. military that is on trial.
Manning's lawyers argue he has been abused while in custody. In testimony Thursday, he said that after his arrest he was held in a tiny cell. He described it as a cage where he thought he would die.
Analysts say the argument has boosted public sympathy for Manning and has taken some of the focus away from damage that the leaks may have caused.
Defense analyst Lawrence Korb says it also has raised an ethical dilemma.
“We’ve never had a thing like this where all the confidential cables have gotten out," Korb noted, "and I think some people are saying you won’t be able to try him rightly because of the way you treated him. Others say, ‘how can you treat someone like this given who we are and what we’re supposed to stand for.'”
While serving in Iraq, Manning voiced opposition to the war, and the classified materials he leaked pointed to alleged atrocities by U.S. troops.
But it is not clear at this stage how Manning’s leaks - as massive as they were - affected national security.
The case is raising questions about whether Manning was psychologically fit to be in the army.
Former superiors describe him as an emotionally troubled individual who was confused about his gender and had trouble relating to others.
For Korb, the case spells a need for reform in the Army’s screening process.
“From 2003 to 2007 when the war, particularly in Iraq, was so unpopular, the army had a very difficult time recruiting people," Korb explained, "so they had to lower their standards and in fact, the army gave 80,000 what they called moral waivers from 2003 to 2007. So, this is a young man who should never have been in the service.”
Pentagon officials have refrained from speaking on the case to avoid prejudicing the outcome.
The trial - if it happens - is expected to begin in about two months.